Things got uncomfortable at City Hall this week, but the dialogue needed to happen.
The Ocean City Mayor and Council is right to not let the situation involving an online comment made by Ocean City Councilman Mark Paddack (who says he was hacked) blow over. At this week’s council meeting, the council voted 4-2 to issue a “public condemnation” of the following comment Paddack made on a woman’s Facebook picture of her husband on their honeymoon: “Tell the dude to turn his hat back where the white designed the hat to be worn. Where I come from, that is a punk. Immature POS.”
During the discussion of the censure, Paddack got angry and personally went after Council President Matt James. Paddack called the censure “childish and unnecessary.” He interrupted his colleagues and the town attorney repeatedly, saying, “you guys do what you want, I know an election year is coming up, go ahead and do it.” Paddack clearly lost his cool, saying to James, “you do what you have to do young man.” In response to Councilman Peter Buas commenting six weeks without an update on an investigation is “unacceptable,” Paddack responded, “and you’re the expert in computer forensics, huh? … and you’ve worked in law enforcement and know how long criminal cases take? In this case, it’s not even criminal, it hasn’t even been proven. … I think this is ridiculous … there’s no crime here … I did nothing wrong, nothing wrong. Somebody decided they wanted to turn a simple incident into racism, and I deplore racism. But to take what’s out there and turn it into the matter that it has is ridiculous and I hold you responsible, council president.”
Officially the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office reported this week the probe into the hack by the Worcester County Bureau of Investigation is ongoing. It was learned this week included in the investigation are messages exchanged between Paddack and a local resident who questioned him about the situation. In messages that clearly came from him and were shared with this paper, Paddack wrote, “Do not believe what you will read. I may errored in a drunk state but needed time to confirm. I just do not recall … They are throwing me under the bus. I will not allow it. I need to confirm was I errored I judgment or hacked?… The truth will be known on my time and no one else …”
Former Ocean City Councilman Dennis Dare came to the defense of his former co-worker Jennie Knapp, current budget manager, this week with a letter to the editor, which was also posted on his old councilman page. Dare specifically calls out Councilman John Gehrig for violating the city’s charter requiring council members to “deal with individual city employees only through the City Manager” as well as a concern “fellow employees will be apprehensive that they, too, will be harassed and berated if they deliver information to the elected officials and are met with disrespectful behavior.” His entire letter is printed this week.
To Dare’s online post, Gehrig responded, “… you and I have different philosophies. We see things differently. You are a lifelong government spender. I am a business-minded person and want investments to bring in new revenues. It is no surprise that you and I disagree on this Room Tax issue. It is also no surprise that some of the staff you managed may have the same philosophy as you. And that led to a detailed conversation at the council meeting the other day. This 60/40 room tax formula (60% of room tax collections goes to the General Fund and 40% goes to the Ad Budget) has been wildly successful and I believe that is a unanimous consensus with the elected officials. Consider this… room tax is our second largest revenue source and came in at over $18 million this year with $1.8 million of that over budget, meaning it was “surprise” revenue. Per the formula, 60% of that (or over $1 million) was used by the General Fund to pay for the 10 new policer officers, 6 new EMTs, and 1 new Communications Operator we budgeted to hire this year. All of those public safety personnel that keep our residents safe year round were paid for by the devil called Tourism. … The history lesson we received at the council meeting used phrases like ‘funding gap’ in describing our ability to pay our bills, basically suggesting that the increased Advertising Budget has created some sort of gap in paying our General Fund expenses. I asked how that was possible but was referred to some bar chart from 2007. … Your bias is incredibly apparent …”
While Gehrig’s tact could have been better at last week’s meeting, his points are legitimate. Though it was a shame his questions offended a long-time employee, the inquiries about room tax revenue distributions are valid. The city’s long-held statements about off-season growth resulting in higher budget expenses are redundant. The growth dollars now far outweigh the added expenses associated with it. The numbers confirm it. Ocean City’s current fund balance of 36% should be the envy of many municipalities. It’s truly impressive the resort has been able to grow its fund balance – or rainy day fund – to this unprecedented level. Ocean City officials, however, must now take action to lower these reserves. It’s far above the stated goal of 15%. These funds can be put to good use continuing to grow tourism or reducing property taxes. A combination of both is the answer. The only non-answer is to continue retaining the revenue hiding behind the played message of it’s needed in the event of a massive emergency.